As was observed earlier this month in the second dispatch about Sony Classical’s 50-CD box set entitled Vladimir Horowitz: The Unreleased Live Recordings 1966–1983, when Horowitz made his final studio recording with Columbia in 1969, he had begun a withdrawal from public performance. He would not return to the public stage until 1974; and, beginning on November 2, 1975, RCA would take on the task of capturing at least some of those performances on recordings. Four such recordings were made during the 1973–1974 season, one at Orchestra Hall in Chicago (November 2), one at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland (February 15), and two at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena (February 22 and 29).
Once again this was a season in which Horowitz chose to focus his attention on one particular major work. As had been the case with his two last seasons with Columbia, the major work was a sonata that posed major technical and aesthetic challenges. In the 1967–1968 season it had been Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 101 in A major. However, 1968 was the year of the 25th anniversary of the death of Sergei Rachmaninoff on March 28, 1943. Horowitz chose to honor Rachmaninoff’s memory by preparing his Opus 36 (second) sonata in B-flat minor; and, as has already been observed, there is a good chance that he performed it at every recital he gave that year before withdrawing from public performance.
When RCA started making his recordings, Horowitz had turned to one of his favorite composers, Robert Schumann. He decided to prepare the last (Opus 14 in F minor) of the three sonatas that Schumann composed, which is probably also his longest single work for solo piano. Schumann had called this a “Grand Sonata,” the same appellation assigned to his first (Opus 11 in F-sharp minor). However, he also called Opus 14 a “Concerto Without Orchestra,” as if the epithet “grand” was insufficient to capture the magnitude of the undertaking.
This sonata is best known among pianists for the notoriety of its final (fourth) movement. The initial tempo marking is Prestissimo possibile (basically, as fast as possible). He then shifts to a Vivacissimo (extremely lively), followed shortly by a Più presto (faster) and a subsequent alternation of Vivacissimo and Più presto. The impression is thus that Schumann wants the movement to begin at a breakneck pace and approach the final measures with the sense that things just keep getting faster. Then, on the penultimate page (at least in the Dover reprint of the Breitkopf & Härtel edition edited by Clara Schumann) seven measures before the final Più presto, Schuman wrote a ferocious two-hand tremolo passage (which is at least tempered at the end by a rallentando).
Wild and demanding as this may seem, Horowitz comes through with performances that are consistently both disciplined and expressive. Schumann’s sonata was clearly the spinal cord of this particular season. (It is also interesting to note that the final movement of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 36 now shows up as an encore selection.) When RCA decided to release their vinyl recording (album cover shown above) of Horowitz playing this sonata, they used the recordings from his four concert performances as source material. That “composite” recording would then subsequently find its way to an all-Schumann CD release. Still there is much to be gained from listening to the full-season compilation offered by Sony Classical’s far more comprehensive box set.